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The New Mexico Prison and Jail Project has filed a lawsuit on behalf of two former inmates at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility located in Grants, N.M. Susie Zapata and Monica Garcia were incarcerated in the women’s prison and say that the facility was infested with rodents. Both women worked in the kitchen during much of their time at the prison. The lawsuit claims unsanitary and dangerous conditions created by the rodent infestation were a violation of their constitutional rights.
“We intend to force the state to finally pay attention to this basic sanitation failure in the women’s prison,” says Matthew Coyte, a civil rights attorney who also serves on the NMPJP steering committee. “It is unhealthy for both prisoners and staff and has been allowed to continue for too long. It is a sad reality that nothing changes in our prison system unless someone is willing to step forward and file suit.”
In addition to suing New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) staff, the lawsuit also targets Summit Food Service, LLC, a private contractor that runs the kitchen at the prison. “If this were a restaurant serving the general public, it would have been shut down years ago. It’s shocking that these women were forced to live, work, eat and sleep in these conditions,” said Cathy Ansheles, the former executive director of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and a member of NMPJP.
According to NMPJP, since at least 2017, NMCD and Summit staff have been aware of the rodent infestation at the women’s prison. The group further alleges that the New Mexico Environment Department, which is responsible for inspecting food service establishments in New Mexico, has cited the prison numerous times over the years for violations related to the presence of rodents.
“It’s unconscionable that the New Mexico Corrections Department would let a rodent infestation spin out of control like this,” says Barron Jones, senior policy strategist at ACLU of New Mexico, “and this has been going on for years. This wasn’t a matter of a few rats here and there. There are rodents living in the walls and vents in and near the kitchen and cafeteria that are breeding and multiplying in enormous numbers. It is just not OK to put people in conditions like this.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections had no comment on the lawsuit.